ONCE SHE WAS A CHILD tells the universal story of childhood in times of upheaval, as conveyed by some of the most extraordinary international woman writers.
Done mostly on location, these intimate encounters mirror a rainbow of human existence shaped by injustice, turmoil and struggle, and still victorious: six year-old Russian Svetlana Vasilenko awaiting death while caught between the Powers dueling with nuclear bombs; the little Italian child Dacia Maraini starved in a Japanese concentration camp; twelve-year-old. Belgian Amelie Nothomb, reading by candle light in a Bangladeshi lepers' house; five-year-old Leena Lander living in the Finnish prison for delinquent boys where her father worked as a supervisor, contemplating in fear and horror her sexually mangled doll found thrown in the forest; eight-year-old Palestinian Anissa Darwish torn by war from the Malkha village of her sweet childhood - all and each of the writers in this book map the way to survival and hope.
They ask us also to take a second look at our own life, and, well informed, to make sure the right decisions are taken in all that concerns this precious little world.
As a literary form, ONCE SHE WAS A CHILD is a hybrid: it owns the genes of literary fiction, with its attention to language, ambiguities and symbols, carved out by the author's mostly invisible questions, and editing; and it carries the genes of narrative nonfiction as those are real life stories of real, and most impressive persons, showing how gloriously they've survived Evil. Glimpses from The Past, of childhood recollections, set, like pearls on a string, with my journal as the connecting thread or background. The reader is invited to absorb. At the end of the book s/he'll discover in a separate section, as an addendum, how far they've reached in The Present.
Tel-Aviv, 12 January 2001
I am working on the conversation with Svetlana, and in my ears her melancholy voice keeps echoing, "Each moment we don't know, now, at this very second, "the blow" will come."
In a duet with my radio, here, now.
The day before yesterday they announced that Saddam Hussein had pledged not to attack Israel.
Yesterday came an Iraqi denial. "We were not exchanging messages with Israel."
The United States announced that it would not attack Iraq before the end of the Winter Olympics, on February 22; The United States will not attack before Parents' Day at the university of the Clintons' daughter, on March first, says the radio.
Svetlana arrived at Yaddo, an artist colony in Upstate New York, a few days before I left it.
In Israel I asked Victor, a friend who came several times especially from Jerusalem and translated word for word from the Russian of our conversation. When we finished, he said, "My wife had been the victim of an atomic accident, before she was even born."
November 25, 1998
Russia is helping Iran build atomic reactors. Back in February Victor had said:
"My wife was born in 1958. I found out about her problem right when we met, in the beginning of the Eighties. I found out that she was suffering from glandular enlargement. The symptoms of the disease were that she would get tired very quickly and have headaches. After a medical checkup, they suggested an operation to remove the gland. In the course of treating her, the doctors, who looked into her life history, said that most probably it was a result of the fact that her mother had been pregnant with her after an explosion which took place in 1957 near them, in a town which was then called Cheliabinsk 65, and today has a more civilian name, Sneginsk. The place is in the Ural Mountains. Northeast Russia.
"They built a center for nuclear research there, and that's where the explosion occurred.
"This town was fenced in and under strict guard, like Svetlana's.
"My wife wasn't living inside the military town but in a village a few dozens kilometers away.
"From the rumors I learned that radioactive water had gathered in containers above the allowed ceiling allowed, exploded and poured out into the area, and permeated into the lakes and rivers in the neighborhood. There were many lakes there, and streams and rivers.
"They didn't make any official announcement, but they evacuated all those who lived in a radius of five, ten kilometers. They built new villages for them and destroyed the old ones.
"The main problem, as I see it, is that this radiation spread in the water, through the streams and the lakes - because the lakes there are connected to each other, that's how nature is over there, a very beautiful area, lakes, thick forests...
"They lived in the village until she was fifteen - then her father got an appointment in the county town, managing the milk industry there.
"He told me that he'd even spoken with the members of the committee which had been set up to deal with the problem. They'd set up several committees there, a military one, a government one, and many senior officials came to the area - it was the first radioactive disaster in Russia on such a scale. In 1957.
"And even he didn't know exactly, they didn't know the real dangers. No one explained to people what radiation was, what it meant, what radiation absorption was.
"They didn't explain it to the inhabitants."
But all their food, the animals - -
"Exactly: cows, milk, grass, food for the cows - the whole environment there was highly contaminated, and is still contaminated today, as far as I know.
"Her father was responsible for the milk. I believe they inspected the milk secretly so that even he and the locals didn't know, it was known only to the scientists, who had been signed to secrecy, and to party members.
"The actual fact that there had been an explosion was known more or less the whole time, but they started writing about it intensively and openly only after Gurbachev came to power and the freedom of speech over there developed a little, and especially after the Chernobyl disaster.
"Chernobyl was in May 1986.
"After the Chernobyl disaster there was a great rise in awareness in Russia of the nuclear problem and many residents in many counties woke up and started looking around them, what's this atomic station over here and what's this factory over there, and what kind of material is being buried here.
"People started to open their eyes a little."
Svetlana Vasilievna Vasilenko
Yesterday I told you about 1962 and about the Caribbean Crisis.
I was six at the time.
There was a quarrel between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the atomic quarrel which could have resulted in the end of the world. Kennedy gave Khrushchev an ultimatum, to get the missiles out of Cuba within an allotted time.
And in our town, because it was a missile town, and it concerned all of us, our fathers and our mothers and us children - everyone really, at work, at home, in kindergarten, everyone was talking about it. Will there be war or not. Many officers used to come to our house, because we had a television set, and my mother was known for her hospitality, and they talked about these problems at the table. They sat around the table, and we children played next to them.
Then father disappeared. By then he had already been sleeping at the launching site. All the officers were sleeping there. It was already a state of emergency.
For a week we didn't know what was going on.
One day, when I was in kindergarten, they came to us and said, "Take the children to the steppe because the ultimatum is about to expire tonight and we can expect a 'blow'."